With Tuition Waiver, Maine Invests in Its First People

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon May 28 14:00:09 UTC 2007

May 28, 2007
With Tuition Waiver, Maine Invests in Its First People


ORONO, Me.  By the time she was 32, Karen Carrion was living in Fort
Lauderdale, Fla., working for a concert promoter and looking for a change.
She had never attended college and considered it out of the question
because of the cost. That changed when Ms. Carrions mother, a Maine native
and a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, urged her to apply to the
University of Maine and its North American Indian Waiver and Scholarship
Program. I probably wouldnt have gone to college at all if not for this,
Ms.  Carrion, a sophomore majoring in womens studies, said between classes
at the universitys flagship campus in Orono, about eight miles north of

The scholarship pays for tuition, fees, room and board for any
undergraduate or graduate student who can prove membership in a state or
federally recognized tribe or can prove direct descent from a member.
Members of recognized Canadian tribes are also eligible, though students
from outside Maine must first live in the state for one year to establish
residency. About 500 students throughout the University of Maine system
are enrolled in the program. About 160 of them, 40 of whom are from out of
state, are enrolled at Orono, said John Bear Mitchell, coordinator of the
waiver program.

The program dates to 1934, when university trustees voted to grant full
scholarships to five students who were members of the Penobscot or
Passamaquoddy tribes. In 1971, the criteria were broadened to include all
North American Indians, but few took advantage. In 2001, the university
appointed Mr. Mitchell to streamline the program, and enrollment has
increased. I think its our responsibility as a land grant university to
work together with the states first people and ensure they not only have
access, but succeed in higher education, said Edna Mora Szymanski, the
senior vice president and provost. Mr. Mitchell said the program cost the
state about $2 million last year.

Other colleges and universities around the country offer similar programs.
Among them are the University of Minnesota-Morris and Fort Lewis College
in Durango, Colo., which give qualified American Indians free tuition, and
the University of Massachusetts system, which offers tuition waivers to
Indians who are state residents. Michigan waives tuition at all public
colleges and universities for students who prove their tribal lineage or
membership and reside in the state for a year or more. Syracuse University
offers free tuition, fees, room and board to first-year and transfer
students from local tribes. According to a 2005 report by the American
Council on Education, the number of American Indian students attending
college doubled from 1977 to 2002. Mr. Mitchell, a member of the Penobscot
Nation, said the Maine program helped empower its students and gave them a
chance to return to their communities and give back.

Mr. Mitchell is also a co-director of the Wabanaki Center at the
university, which studies the four largest tribes in Maine: the Maliseet,
Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. According to the 2000 census,
six-tenths of 1 percent of Maine residents, or about 7,000 people, are
American Indian. The center is a gathering place for Indian students, many
of whom lived on small reservations before coming to college. Its a safe
place. It provides students with a set of relations within the university
community, said Shaerri Mitchell, 36, a graduate student whose grandfather
founded the center. It models the communal structure of a reservation. She
and Mr.  Mitchell are cousins. Sonya Lacoute, who attended the university
as an undergraduate and will receive her masters in social work next May,
came to Orono from Pleasant Point Indian Reservation, which is home to
about 2,000 people in far eastern Maine.

Ms. Lacoute, who works now in the tribal court for the Penobscot Nation on
Indian Island, about four miles from campus, said the scholarship allowed
her to attend college and the center helped her adjust to life in a more
urban setting than she was used to. To me, this was the big city, she
said. In that very different environment, it was nice to know that there
were other natives here in a very welcoming environment. Mr. Mitchell said
he hoped to bring more out-of-state students to the program. He does not
have much of a recruiting budget, he said, and news of the scholarship
travels mainly by word of mouth. Students are going to high school
classrooms around Maine to publicize the program.

Were still underrepresented in the University of Maine system, Mr.
Mitchell said. For a long time the public thought we were needy, and we
want to show them that were not. We want to educate students, graduate
them, and give the state more tax money and a return on their investment.



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